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Is It Really Healthier to Eat Organic Food?

This article is kindly reprinted from THE WEEK, 8 September, 2001, and reflects the debate over organic food.

Salmonella in eggs, BSE, foot and mouth: every time Britain has a major food scare, there is a dramatic rise in the sales of organic food. Can organic farming provide healthier, safer and greener food, or is the consumer being taken for a ride?


How big is the organic food market?

Even though consumers can expect to pay up to 70% more for the organic label, organic food has become the fastest-growing sector of the British grocery market. In the mid-eighties, Sainsbury's had a handful of organically grown products; now it has about 1, 000 lines. But little of this is supplied by British farmers: the vast bulk of organic food consumed in Britain (80%) is imported from abroad. A mere 1 % of British farming is fully organic, with a further 2% in the process of being converted.

What does "organically produced" mean?

Strictly speaking "organic" implies that no chemical fertilisers or pesticides have been used in production; that crops have been rotated and fertilised with manure; and that animals have been reared without antibiotics and growth hormones. But since the organic label has a cachet, supermarkets have a strong incentive to exploit the standards set by the EU. Thus Tesco was able to sell ordinary pork as organic because, under the EU's minimum standards, pigs reared in conventional piggeries can be classed as organic if they have been fed with organic food months before slaughter. Similarly, with the exception of Waitrose, supermarkets tend to buy their organic eggs from factory-type farms with huge flocks of chickens fed on organic grain. The Soil Association, which licences about 70% of Britain's organic production, has refused to certify these on welfare grounds.


What are the arguments in favour of organic farming?

A curious mix of the scientific and the ideological. The scientific argument is that crops grown without chemical fertilisers and animals reared without the use of growth-promoting antibiotics are healthier for both the human body and for the planet. But the organic farming movement has deep roots in the counterculture and its "science" is often hard to disentangle from its principled stand against the new economic order, and the evils of agribusiness and junk food. It also rests on a metaphysical belief that the laws of the natural order cannot be flouted with impunity.


Does the movement have a scientific pedigree?

Some of its founding fathers were reputable scientists who, between the wars, opposed the

growing reliance on agricultural chemistry. They include Sir Albert Howard, who developed the modern craft of composting, though even he was dismissed by the pro-fertiliser lobby as a superstitious believer in "muck and magic". Howard's most influential convert was Eve Balfour, niece of Prime Minister Arthur Balfour and first president of the Soil Association. But the movement has also had its share of Luddites and oddballs. An early proponent, for example, was Rudolf Steiner, who advocated planting the soil with cow horns to capture the earth's rays. Others have invested the idea with quasi-mystical or political significance (see box). A similar misplaced mysticism, say the critics, infects the views of modern enthusiasts like Prince Charles.


What do the critics say?

According to Professor Anthony Trewavas of the University of Edinburgh, Prince Charles is "abusing his status" by encouraging "organic ideologues" and peddling "bad science". The contention that we are being slowly poisoned by pesticides is simply wrong, says Trewavas. The facts show that, thanks to cheap conventionally produced food, we are living longer. Moreover, hundreds of rigorous tests have failed to show that organic foods have improved nutritional value, but rather have consistently shown them to have lower nitrate and protein content. Trewavas's criticisms have been echoed by Sir John Krebs, chairman of of the Food Standards Agency, and by the Advertising Standards Authority which last year forced the Soil Association to scrap a leaflet about the benefits of organic food on the grounds that there was no evidence that it is healthier, or that it tastes better.


How have organic food campaigners reacted?

They claim that men like Trewavas are apologists for industrial agriculture and cite a raft of scientific reports showing that organic plants contain higher levels of vitamins and "secondary metabolites" - thought to lower the risk of cancer. But, as Trewavas notes, the suggested differences are fairly insignificant whereas the price difference between organic and conventional produce is substantial. So any health advantages organic food may have are more than offset by the fact that high prices may deter consumers from eating enough fruit and vegetables.


But isn't organic clearly better for the environment?

Not necessarily, say the critics. Since anything organic takes longer to grow and yields are lower, organic is more "wasteful" of land than conventional farming. There seems little doubt, however, that the rotation of crops, the preserving of permanent pasture and hedgerows, and other standards laid down by the Soil Association create a far more pleasant and diverse countryside. Organic farms have been found to contain five times as many wild plants and 57 more plant species on average than conventional farms. But these advantages can be lost once organic food becomes big business, as in the US.


What has happened in America?

Organic food in the US is such a profitable business that it has been almost completely taken over by big food corporations. The emphasis is now on organic processed foods: there is not only organic ketchup, but also organic TV dinners and even organic Twinkies. This has brought food additives and synthetic chemicals into organic food. Worse still, it has promoted the takeover of small organic enterprises by giant farms, since it is far cheaper for the food corporations to buy from larger farms. These "industrial organic" farms, while still restricting the amount of chemicals used in production, dispense with such luxuries as crop rotation and "free range" conditions for animals, and increasingly resemble the monoculture of the conventional farm.

The fascist taint behind organic food

An alarming number of the key figures who supported organic farming in its early days belonged to the far right, says Philip Conford in The Origins of the Organic Movement. They included the poet and Nazi sympathiser Edmund Blunden; the historian Arthur Bryant - also a Nazi enthusiast; the novelist Henry Williamson, author of Tarka the Otter, and a member of the British Union of Fascists; and Jorian Jenks, who edited the Soil Association's journal right up to the Sixties and was an active Mosleyite late into the Forties. All of these men imbued the idea of organic farming with romanticism of a distinctly Wagnerian flavour. The movement also attracted "high-church" Christians including Jenks, who was secretary to the Council for Church and Countryside. Prominent Catholic supporters included G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. T. S. Eliot helped publish the list of unconventional farming books by Faber & Faber, and three of his Four Quartets were first published by New English Weekly, a key "organic" journal.

Produced in Poland by British Council 2003. The United Kingdom's international organisation for educational opportunities and cultural relations. We are registered in England as a charity.